Archive for the ‘Excavation’ Category

New Find Reveals Romans Did Give a Duck About Bathing

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Anaticula resiliens

A hugely significant find has been made close to the Letocetum Roman Baths at Lichfield in Staffordshire. Excavating an outlying field, which many believe to be a water shrine used by the bathers, excavators have recovered a small yellow duck. This tiny find is now set to revolutionise the way we consider Roman bathing.

I am sure most readers of this blog will subscribe to the International Interdisciplinary Journal of Early Roman Bathing and Bath Structures and so it will come as no surprise that one of the longest unanswered questions about Roman bathing habits is: did they have fun in the bath itself? Many of the activities that took place in and around the baths were carried out in the frigidarium, tepidarium, and laconium including meeting friends, eating snacks from vendors around the baths, playing board games like tabula, and playing trigon, a ball game with three balls. But when it came to the actual bath and immersion in water, very little is known about what Romans did, as most evidence was carried away in antiquity by the drains. This chance find is now set remedy the lacuna in our knowledge.

Seneca the Younger, who recorded Roman bathing habits in Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, occasionally refers to Romans having anas or ‘duck’ with them in the baths. Until this find, it was assumed that Seneca was referring to a pre-bath snack – often a local mallard, known to be popular with fish sauce mixed with orange – but this new find posits another possibility. A more obscure Roman historian, Aprilis Calendae, writes about Anaticula resiliens rather than anas, which, until now, had completely baffled Latin scholars as to the correct translation. This new find suggests it is etymologically related to anas and that Anaticula resiliens can now be accurately translated as ‘Rubber Duckie’.

The fine condition of the Anaticula resiliens from Litchfield, with hardly any of the dirt that one usually expects from an excavated find, suggests it was heavily used in the bath itself. Any, dirt would have been washed off on a regular basis. Had the ‘Rubber Duckie’ been purely for display, it would have attracted dust and rapidly become very dirty. The baths may be self-cleaning but this was unlikely to reach a display duck. This means that Romans must have played with their ducks in the bath itself and clearly their bath time fun extended into the wet as well as dry areas. This adds significantly to our knowledge of Roman bathing.

Since this Anaticula resiliens appears to have been dressed as a centurion, it is likely it was used by the legionary commanders but, without further finds, it is not possible to say if ordinarily Roman soldiers used rubber ducks in the bath. The expectation is that they did.

The material from which the Anaticula resiliens was made is rubber. This material was only rarely found in the Roman world and may give a clue as to why this particular duck was finally deposited in a sacred area. Since Romans did not manufacture rubber themselves, it is likely that this duck was formed from local rubber, probably from recycled chariot tires. We know from Tacitus that Boudicca used chariots in her final battle with Suetonius, which many believe occurred along Watling Street near Litchfield – exactly where the Roman baths are located. It is possible that, the Roman victors from that battle would have recycled Boudicca’s chariot tires to make symbolically important items, including rubber ducks.

Using Anaticula resiliens in the bath may have therefore been a symbolic means of showing superiority over the local Celts who were, according to pretty much every Roman historian, a fairly filthy, unwashed bunch. But in addition, the Roman bathers were displaying their supremacy over the Celts – epitomised with the defeat of Boudicca – by bathing with ‘Rubber Duckie’ (or, most likely, Duckies).

That this duck survived the bath drains to be offered to the Gods at a water shrine shows that they were hallowed objects rather than purely functional items. Although it is only speculation at this stage, excavators believe each duck would have been named for its owner. It is hoped that laboratory analysis may reveal the name of the centurion from Litchfield. But whoever he was, he clearly loved playing with his duck over many bath times before offering him (and the clothing on the duck suggests male gender) as a gift to the Gods, marking both the subjugation of local tribes but also the affection in which the Centurion held his ‘Rubber Duckie’.


Mana to Heaven: Offerings to the Gods in Roman Britain

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Selby Hoard

It was in 2010 that a metal detectorist, who opted to remain anonymous, heard the tell-tale bleep notifying him of metal below his feet. He was part of a club detecting over land near Selby in Yorkshire. Digging gently down, and hoping to find a Roman coin, the metal detectorist was astonished when he came across two pots stuffed full with coins. Knowing this was now a job for professionals, he called in archaeologists via the hugely successful Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Such a large find of coins was instantly classed as treasure and the British Museum had a chance to buy it and put it on public display. I caught up with the hoard in Bristol, as part of its national tour, and it was incredible to see the silver coins spilling from one pot that was broken, whilst the other was so stuffed full the coins had actually fused together over the millennia.

Incredibly, the solid mass of coins could still be identified through something called Microtomographic Volume Imaging, which, in English, means using X-rays to identify every coin singularly (a general image of the pot is shown above). From this, researchers could tell each pot contained 201 (unbroken pot) and 99 (broken pot) Roman denarii (the small silver coin of everyday use) dating from the last years of the Republic right through to coins dating to AD 181. It seems remarkable that so many historical coins would have still been circulating so long after minting, so it is possible they had been collected and kept for many years, perhaps even centuries.

Initially, the find was reported as a chance loss of somebody’s life savings, buried in the ground for safe keeping but, unfortunately for the owner, never retrieved. This seems to be the standard approach to all coin hoards, at least initially, as it is hard for modern people to imagine giving away so much wealth for any other reason. We no longer offer such gifts to the Gods but there is something the X-rays found in both pots that suggest this may have been the true intention of whoever buried it.

In between the coins, the X-rays revealed small organic material (preserved only because the coins were so tightly fused), which turned out to be chaff from spelt-wheat grains. This was the grain from which Romans and Romano-Britons made their daily bread. But why put grain in with a coin hoard, unless both were intended as a gift to the Gods? Could these grains represent the first harvest of the year, offered in thanks for a successful year of farming?

Writing of an earlier time, Roman historian Siculus tells us that the inhabitants of Britain burnt their “first fruits” on a bonfire as an offering to the Gods in thanks for the harvest (he also talks about the odd human prisoner being thrown on as well for good measure). The Greek historian Arrian adds that Celtic people always offer the first fruits of the hunt to the Gods in a similar gesture of thanks. Perhaps the grain in the jars was the “first fruits” of the harvest, not burnt but buried in the ground.

If grain was a usual offering to the Gods from the first take from the harvest, then this particular year it was boosted by the addition of a small fortune in silver denarii. But why this year? The only event that occurred around 181 AD (the date of the last coin in the hoard and hoards are usually deposited close to the date of the last coin) is the overthrow of the Antonine Wall by the northern tribes and the retreat of the Romans to Hadrian’s Wall. It’s possible this may have caused repercussions further south, especially if it led to increased militarisation of the area.

Perhaps our farmer at Selby, probably an estate owner given the sheer wealth he or she gave away, had had a good harvest but, with the unrest in the north, feared for the future. So this year, as well as giving his or her first fruits to the Gods, he or she added the family’s greatest treasure, an heirloom passed down and added to across generations. It would have been a momentous event, seeing so much money disappear into the ground and perhaps gave the family hope that they would be safe from the turmoil. I hope that was true and that the Gods smiled on their harvest for a good few years afterwards.


Could the Staffordshire Hoard be a Votive Offering?

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Staffordshire HoardIt was back in July 2009 that Terry Herbert got permission to metal detect over a field next to the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire. The farmer told him not to bother as there was nothing there. Over the next few days, Herbert dug so many gold artefacts from the field that he felt completely overwhelmed and so, like any responsible metal detectorist, he called in the archaeologists. They eventually excavated over 3,500 items, which, in the words of the British Museum’s Leslie Webster, were “absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.” The artefacts have tentatively been dated to the 7th or 8th centuries, placing the origin of the items in the time of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. It was probably the most significant Anglo-Saxon discovery since Sutton Hoo and, from when I first saw the items, still covered in mud, I knew that something very special had led to their burial.

As a prehistorian, I am used to the votive explanation for many hoards buried in the ground or thrown into rivers; they are gifts to the spirits or to the Gods. But it was not always like that. When I prepared my PhD thesis in 2001, I was considered radical for proposing this, flying in the face of more experienced heads who maintained that much of the metalwork had been buried for safekeeping, the owner fully intending to retrieve it later. For many academics, the idea of giving away such wealth was preposterous; they wouldn’t do it and so they couldn’t believe people in the past would do it either. Slowly, ideas changed and now much of the prehistoric metalwork found in hoards is assumed to be votive.

Anglo-Saxon archaeology is different. Dr Roger Bland, Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, summed it up by stating in relation to the Staffordshire Hoard: “It is assumed that the items were buried by their owners at a time of danger, with the intention of later coming back and recovering them.” Where had I heard that before? But this is not my area of expertise and so I dutifully respected those in the know and bit my tongue. However, several new discoveries have made me reconsider and maybe it is now time to suggest that the hoard may have been a votive offering after all.

Despite assurances that the field had yielded all its secrets, another 91 pieces have been discovered subsequent to the initial excavation. A treasure inquest on 4th January of this year ruled that 81 of these items were part of the original cache (they were close to the original findspot and were probably only scattered by the plough), 8 were modern farm debris, and 2 were from different deposits altogether, being some 40 and 50 metres away from the original findspot. It is these two items I want to focus on.

Little more than 2-3 centimetres in length, these two scraps of copper alloy are Anglo-Saxon harness fittings, decorated with intricate patterns of interweaving lines. They are unlikely to be chance losses; harness pieces do not just fall off a horse and two separate losses would be very unlikely. Moreover, the fact that these two items reflect the items in the original hoard suggests that people returned to the site, possibly on more than one occasion, and deposited similar material. Deposition here was a pattern, not a one off.

The original excavation found no sign of a burial mound, and while it cannot be entirely ruled out, there seems to be little signs of prehistoric burial mounds that may have attracted activity at this particular spot. But air photography and – perhaps tellingly – local folk traditions tell of a small hillock in the field, right where the hoard was discovered. During the initial excavation, a later field boundary curved at this point, as if it were avoiding or perhaps respecting something pre-existing, perhaps the hillock. Soil surveys suggest the hillock was formed from sand and clay, which would have affected vegetation growth at this spot, making it even more noticeable.

So why did people bury the hoard? A striking feature linking many of the items is that they are martial in nature. Indeed, most come from weapons, including 66 gold sword hilt collars. Even a biblical quotation on a strip of metal refers to warfare: “Rise up, Lord; may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You be driven from Your face” and a gold cross may have been a standard to lead troops into battle. The fragmentary nature of the items within the hoard suggests they may have been war loot; the most valuable parts of weaponry plundered from a defeated foe on the battlefield. To me, this makes a votive motivation far more plausible.

Again, as a prehistorian, I am struck by the Hjortspring boat from Sweden, an Iron Age vessel full of battle gear and deliberately sunk as a war offering. Victorious warriors probably collected the loot and gave it to their war God in thanks for victory. The Anglo-Saxons might have done something similar, especially since they were not that far removed from their pagan past, when warriors would offer Odin the spoils of war if he granted them victory.

So why bury the items at Hammerwich? Possibly people interpreted the hillock in the field, albeit natural, as a barrow for a God or even for a mythical ancestor. Stories about the mound might have grown and people visited the place to show their respects, possibly seeking aid in everyday life, possibly even for a forthcoming skirmish. Like their ancestors before them, people offered the God or spirit choice pickings from any war loot if only they were granted victory. True to their word, after the battle, the victors returned and buried a bag of selected items as an offering of thanks. The site’s reputation grew as a result and others also visited, leaving smaller offering, such as the harness fittings that have just been discovered. The martial nature of these offerings matches those of the original cache, showing that the traditions associated with the mound were now widely known And, when people later came to demark the land with field boundaries, they studiously avoided the mound, making sure it remained a prominent feature in the landscape.

But this is only one possible story to explain the hoard among many others and new research, particularly on the surrounding landscape, will doubtless lead to more being told. But these latest finds, albeit only tiny scraps of copper alloy, already change what we know about the site. And, for this prehistorian, allows me to wonder with more impetus: could the Staffordshire Hoard be a votive offering? I can’t wait to find out more.

Phanagoria: The Site Where History and Archaeology Meet

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

PhangoriaArchaeologists and historians occasionally have a healthy disrespect for each other’s disciplines. Archaeologists interpret what they dig from the ground, whereas historians interpret what they read in old manuscripts. In an honest article from Jan Vansina, writing in History of Africa in 1995, the respected historian states, “most historians are simply not interested in the results of archaeology”. The same could probably be written for archaeologists about history. And yet, there is a site at Phanagoria in Russia where the two disciplines really are siblings and, like most healthy family relationships, they definitely bring out the best in each other. Let me explain.

Phanagoria is a superlative site on the Taman peninsula, a hunk of land jutting into the Black Sea. Built by the seafaring Greeks at around 543 BC, it was named for one of its founders, Phanagoras. During the fifth century BC, the town thrived on trade with neighbouring Scythians and Sindi and, by the first century BC, it had grown to become the main centre of the Bosporan Kingdom.

Such success attracts covetous eyes and Mithridates VI, King of Pontus on the southern shores of the Black Sea, was steadily expanding his territory northwards. Eventually, this included Phanagoria and it was here that Mithridates reputedly built his palace.

Such expansion of territory in the first century AD naturally attracted the attention of the reigning superpower of the day and, almost inevitably, Rome decided that the upstart Mithridates should be brought to heel, so initiating the Mithridatic Wars.

Phanagoria was not so enamoured of its new ruler that it was not above siding with the Romans and, at around 63 AD, the inhabitants of the city rebelled. Mithridates himself was not at home but his children were. Appian, a contemporary historian originally from Alexander in Egypt, takes up the story:

“Although the citadel was already held by Artaphernes and other sons of Mithridates, the inhabitants piled wood around it and set it on fire, in consequence of which Artaphernes, Darius, Xerxes, and Oxathres, sons, and Eupatra, a daughter, of Mithridates, in fear of the fire, surrendered themselves and were led into captivity.”

A heady tale but could it be true? Historians might side with the written word but archaeologists need something they can physically touch. In 2011, they got just that. Excavators uncovered a large building in the centre of the city, located at the acropolis. It had been gutted by fire. The discarded coins that littered the floor put the date for the conflagration around the middle of the first century AD. Was this Mithridates’ palace, burnt down by the rebels to capture his children? The evidence seemed good.

But archaeologists (and historians) are cautious folk. The find might have corroborated some of Appian’s story but was it enough to prove conclusively that this was Mithridates’ palace? What the excavators dreamt of was a find with Mithridates’ name inscribed across it. They got it.

Much of Phanagoria now lies underwater and it was the submerged excavation team that hit gold. Or rather stone. A marble tombstone bore the inscription “Hypsikrates, Wife of King Mithridates Eupator Dionysos, Farewell”. But before the archaeologists broke out the champagne and coincidentally invited the Russian president to visit (Vladimir Putin was an enthusiastic visitor, actually scuba-diving the site and taking home a jar as a souvenir), there was a problem. Mithridates had many wives (the first was his sister with whom he bore six children) but the woman he married in 63 AD, just prior to the insurrection, was called Hypsicratea. Hypsikrates, the inscription on the tombstone, was the masculine form of the name. So what was going on? To the historians relief, Plutarch – the Roman biographer of Pompey who fought for the Romans in the Mithridatic Wars – comes to the rescue. He tells us that Mithridates wife:

“…who on all occasions showed the spirit of a man and desperate courage; and accordingly the king used to call her Hypsikrates”.

So Hypsikrates was Mithridates’ nickname for a beloved and apparently formidable wife. And if she lived (and died) in Phanagoria, so presumably did he. Appian and Plutarch, much to the historians’ relief, had been proved right through archaeological excavation. History and archaeology, working together as two siblings should. Cue the champagne.

From Blood Red to Brilliant White: Colour Symbolism in the Palaeolithic

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Red LadyAround 29,000 years ago, during a warm spell between the repeated ravages of the Ice Age, a group of mourners brought a recently deceased young man to an isolated cave on a small rise, which would, one day, be the southern coastline of Wales. Within the cave, they dug a small pit for his body, placing a stone at either end as support for his head and feet. After lowering the man into the earth, possessions were laid upon and around him before the assembled group carried out the final act of the burial. They took copious amounts of red ochre, a natural earth pigment, and sprinkled it liberally over the body. It not only stained the man’s leather clothing deep red but also the body beneath. His remains, initially mistaken for a woman, became the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’, after the cave in which he was found.

Red Ochre Pigment

Ochre is also known from other burials during the Palaeolithic, such as Dolní Vĕstonice in the Czech Republic, where three bodies dating to around 26,000 years ago lay in a single grave: a woman between two men. Mourners sprinkled red ochre over the heads of the three, and across the groin of the woman, offering a tantalising possibility for her demise. Perhaps she had died from haemorrhaging during childbirth; the red of the ochre thereby mirroring the blood that drained from her body. Scenes such as this have led some researchers to suggest that ochre did indeed stand for blood, symbolising the life force that is within all living beings. Its use in burials created a continuum from life to death and possibly also reveals people’s understanding and expectation of an afterlife.

Many Upper Palaeolithic burials in Europe contain ochre pigment but its use also dates to far earlier times. People from Blombos Cave in South Africa, around  75,000 years ago, used ochre blocks as the canvas for some of the earliest art in existence. It is quite possible that the choice of medium was entirely intentional since there are hints that people also ground the pigment for painting. Over time, evidence for ochre use intensifies with its deep red colour increasingly used for ornamentation. People may have even used ochre for body decoration; a badge of belonging denoting to which group an individual originated. But was ochre merely a convenient medium for ornamentation or did it actually stand for something? Before its use in burials, it is difficult to be sure but clearly people were consciously choosing to use the colour red for their decorative designs.

Ornamentation developed further during the Upper Palaeolithic with people wearing small items on strings or sewn into their clothes. Again, it seems likely that these carried a message, not only to which group an individual belonged but also other symbolic associations. Teeth, for example, were popular during this time and were usually taken from predatory animals rather than prey species. When worn around the neck or sewn into clothing, the teeth may have denoted group affiliation, but the prevalence of predator species suggests they also brought other symbolic properties; the tooth becoming a metaphor for characteristics of the animal, such as defending the group or success in the hunt. But why did people select teeth to wear? After all, it was a long and bloody process to extract them from the jaw of an animal and longer still to prepare them for suspension. But teeth have a property that may have been especially important to people: they are shiny.

Brilliant White and Spiritual Power

Other materials Palaeolithic people used to make ornaments were also shiny, including ivory, mother of pearl, and soapstone. These all share a visual similarity that makes them almost appear to glow. Certain modern-day hunter-gatherers equate such inner brilliance with spiritual power and the Yolngu of northern Australia finely cross-hatch their artwork so that it shimmers and glows. The glistening nature of Yolngu art – its brilliance –instils it with spiritual power that appears to radiate out from the design. Moreover, such experience is not limited to Yolngu alone. Others who view the art also note its effects and have similar reactions to when they view shimmering water, the sun moving behind a patchwork of leaves, or even when examining the same type of objects worn by Palaeolithic people. People are captivated by the brilliance and, fleetingly, are held in its thrall, as if something reaches out and holds them fast. Whilst the encounter can be reduced to a natural neuropsychological response to a complex interplay of stimuli, the effect on people can be akin to a spiritual experience. Certainly, this is how the Yolngu people interpret brilliance – a spiritual power emanating from the object or art – and this may have been how Palaeolithic people also related to shiny objects. Their brilliance contained and radiated spiritual power. The tactile nature of the materials people worked may even suggest that people handled the objects, possibly in an attempt to absorb some of their power.

Crafting Ornaments

Most of the items Palaeolithic people made into ornaments are naturally shiny except one: ivory needed to be polished to uncover its brilliance. Whilst it may seem that this would have put people off using it, this is not the case. Ivory beads, animal models, and even replica hunting weapons proliferate during the Palaeolithic and it seems that people were entirely prepared to invest the time needed to make their ivory creations shine. Within two linked graves at Sunghir in eastern Russia, dating to around 24,000 years ago, two children had thousands of ivory beads sewn into their clothes. It has been estimated that each bead took 45 minutes to make, which means the 5,000 beads worn by the girl would have taken in excess of 3,750 hours working time. That is the equivalent of a person working 12 hours a day for  over 10 months; an incredible investment of time. With the harshness of everyday life, it is hard to understand why anyone would invest so much time in creating ornamentation (or why others would support them whilst doing so), unless actually working with ivory was considered important in its own right.

At La Souquette, in France, shells were replicated in ivory before being made into jewellery. It seems ivory brought something to the finished ornament that shells were unable to provide on their own. Since ivory is the only material to require polishing to make it shine, it is possible that this was the crucial stage of production. Like the Yolngu, it is possible that Palaeolithic people were polishing ivory objects to bring out their brilliance, making themselves participants in uncovering the inner power of the item. Making an ivory bead may have even been akin to a spiritual act, uncovering power that would benefit not only the person wearing the object but also the group as a whole. It was therefore beneficial for the community to support these craftspeople for the considerable time they needed to perfect their creations. There is also one final element of the process that may be significant: the polishing agent used to bring out the brilliance of ivory was ochre, the same red earth pigment people sprinkled over the dead. Ochre released the brilliance, and potentially also the spiritual power, of ivory. From red came brilliant white.

Buried Shamans

The red ochre spread over burials may not have been to symbolise blood or life force but rather a means of bringing forth brilliance and spiritual power. It may have also referenced the decomposition process of a body whereby the flesh and blood rots to reveal white bone, which, in its raw state, is often shiny. This transformation may have also been apparent when collecting teeth to wear as ornaments. It has been noted that the extraction process was particularly bloody and the teeth would have needed cleaning after removal from the jaw. Any adhering blood would need to be wiped away before the shiny white enamel of the tooth became apparent. At Brassempouy, in France, people even collected and pierced human teeth for suspension. Ochre spread over the body may have been connected with such transformation, ensuring that an individual’s spiritual power was released upon death. It is striking that at Sunghir, where the children were effectively covered in ivory beads, and therefore already brilliant, ochre was not spread over the bodies but was added to the grave stuffed inside an older human leg bone. It seems that, whilst mourners considered the presence of ochre to be an important part of the burial assemblage, its usual role in covering the body was not necessary.

The presence of ochre in Palaeolithic graves, and its potential associations with spiritual power, suggests that the people within those graves may have been considered special in their own right. The man from Paviland had the skull of a mammoth sitting nearby, perhaps watching over his body, and a number of broken ivory rods and bracelets were placed on his chest. Perhaps the rods were used in the burial ritual, rather like magic wands or, perhaps, more prosaically, they were blanks for cutting beads. Those choosing the burial site may have even considered the cave a special place, perhaps an entrance to the lowerworld, and it is striking that people returned to the site and left objects, possibly as offerings, long after the burial would have been forgotten.

A man from Brno, dating slightly later at around 23,000 years ago, had an ivory marionette of a human figure in his grave, with the arms and legs joined to the body so that they could move independently. It is possible that the man used the marionette in magical performances and the addition of a possible drumstick in the grave adds another element to these performances. Similar marionettes are used in other cultures, far removed in time but perhaps not in focus. Inuit people, for example, carve figurines of humans for use in their shamanic rituals. As the Brno man was closely identified with these items (after all, they were confined to his grave) it is possible that he was a shaman or, at least, the Palaeolithic equivalent to a shaman. Brno man also suffered from the bone disease periostitis and this is mirrored by the woman from the grave at Dolní Vĕstonice, who was badly disabled, and also by other Palaeolithic graves. Why these disabled individuals were singled out for special burial is difficult to discern but shamans from more recent times are often disabled, or suffer debilitating illness, and it is possible that a similar attitude prevailed during the Palaeolithic. Equally, the children at Sunghir are special precisely because they are children; there is no other sign of hereditary hierarchy at this time so whatever singled the boy and girl out as special presumably happened in their lifetime. Perhaps they had the power of prophesy or were considered spiritually important in some other way.  That may be why so much effort was undertaken to furnish them with such extravagant grave goods.

The Colour of Spiritual Power

This is a small but representative selection of Palaeolithic burials since others seem to share characteristics that make them special. It is plausible that all interred individuals were considered spiritually powerful whilst alive, possibly even the shamans of their communities. But while people may have accepted these individuals had power during life, after death, the situation was more ambiguous. Some lay secure with their ritual paraphernalia, and the two children at Sunghir dazzled in their layer of ivory beads, but for most it was a final layer of ochre that released such latent power. Perhaps this helped in crossing to the afterlife, or perhaps people thought that it actually kept the dead spirit close, in order to watch over the community. It is striking that many Palaeolithic burials were weighted down or were bound, possibly in an attempt to keep the spirit close.

It was not the colour red that made ochre significant during the Palaeolithic but its ability to bring out spiritual power through brilliance. Even kept sealed within the confines of a bone holder as at Sunghir, ochre was a vital component of burial. If these burials were shamans and their spirits had tasks to complete after death, it was a deep red covering of ochre that brought forth their power. Red may be a significant colour to us today, and we might readily associate it with blood and the spark that provides life, but to Palaeolithic people the colour may have been only a means to an end. Blood red brought forth brilliant white and released the latent power it contained.

This article was originally published in Origins Issue 2 (Fall 2012) and is reprinted here with permission. For the full illustrated article and complete references click here.

The Most Beautiful Woman in the World: 100 Years of the Bust of Nefertiti

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Sometimes referred to as the most beautiful representation of a woman of the ancient world, December 6th 2012 marks the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of the bust of Nefertiti, wife and queen to Pharaoh Akhenaten. Her life, raised from obscurity to become Great Royal Wife to the Pharaoh, encompassed one of the strangest eras of New Kingdom Egypt, when the old Gods were replaced by a single monotheistic deity: the Aten.

Her husband began his reign as Amenhotep IV, and early images show the pharaoh worshiping Re-Harakhti at the temple of Amun-Re. Nothing unusual there, pharaohs are often portrayed worshiping the Gods. But Amenhotep was shortly to decree the construction of a temple dedicated solely to the Aten, tellingly including a structure called the Hwt Benben, which was dedicated to Queen Nefertiti. The Aten was the sun and Amenhotep’s devotion to the solar disc was to change his life and that of his queen.

By the fifth year of his reign, in 1,346 BC, Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning the ‘living spirit of Aten’. He was literally declaring himself the son of God, but more was to come. Leaving the capital city of Thebes, Akhenaten embarked upon building a new city on the east bank of the Nile, in what was then virgin desert. It may have been that the resemblance to the hieroglyph for horizon in the surrounding cliffs showed him that this was the place to found the city, allowing his beloved Aten to rise unhindered every morning and sink into the waters of the Nile each evening. The city, originally called Akhetaten but now known as Amarna, took four years to complete.

Although Akhetaten is sometimes portrayed as a cruel tyrant who forced his new religion upon his people, this was probably not the case. While some courtiers changed their name to better praise the Aten, many did not, and even among official artists, images of the old Gods abounded. For ordinary people, nothing much changed and many small finds from Amarna show that people carried amulets of favoured Gods, pretty much as they always had. But for Akhetaten, the Aten was all that mattered. He even composed poetry to his God, which begins “You arise beauteous in the horizon of the heavens, Oh living Aten who creates life”.

Unusually, Nefertiti played an almost equal role to her husband in worshipping the Aten and there are many reliefs showing the pharaoh, his wife, and even his children paying homage to the disc of the sun, enveloped in the rays of Aten.

These were not the only images of Nefertiti in the city. One workshop, that of Thutmose, the official court sculptor to the pharaoh, contained many busts of Nefertiti. Most of those that have survived were unfinished, suggesting a sudden end to images of the royal family on the death of the pharaoh. Indeed, Amarna was abandoned entirely following his death and left to the desert to reclaim. Akhetaten’s son, Tutankhaten, meaning ‘living image of Aten’, even had to change his name upon ascending to the throne, adopting the more politically acceptable Tutankhamun, meaning the ‘living image of Amun’, the old and now restored God.

Thutmose’s busts of Nefertiti lay undisturbed for over 3,000 years, until a German team, led by Ludwig Borchardt stumbled upon his workshop in 1912. Borchardt rummaged through all the unfinished busts of the queen until he held one that, in his words: “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words.” It was a portrait that was to entrance the world.

There is no little controversy about how Borchardt managed to remove the bust from Egypt (finds were routinely divided in those days between the excavator and the Egyptian museum, but there is talk that Borchardt concealed the true value of the bust) but it was taken to Germany where it has remained ever since. First belonging to the sponsor of the Amarna excavations, James Simon, it was donated to the Berlin Museum in 1920. Hidden during the war, and then not finding a permanent home for decades, the bust returned to the Neues Museum in Berlin as its centrepiece when it reopened in October 2009.

Nefertiti is now seen as an icon of ancient and modern beauty, spanning millennia of style and taste, and attracting over 500,000 visitors to her side every year. It is hard not to imagine that Akhetaten, by including his wife and their children with the images of the Aten, was not speaking of her when, in the fourth line of his poem, he eulogises: “You are so beautiful: you are great; gleaming and high over every land.” It is a fitting tribute to his queen.

Helena of Constantinople: Patron Saint of Archaeologists

Friday, August 17th, 2012

August 18th is the feast of Saint Helena of Constantinople who is the little-known patron saint of archaeologists. In fact, due to her spiritual motivation, she was probably one of the first people ever to have embarked upon archaeological fieldwork.

Helena was born around 250 AD in Drepanum, in the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor (now modern day Turkey). Her early life was probably quite ordinary for a girl growing up in the late Classical period (she was, apparently, a barmaid), until that is, she met Constantius, a soldier serving in her province under Emperor Aurelian. It is recorded that Helena and Constantius were wearing matching silver bracelets, a sign Constantius took that he had met his soul mate; he called her a gift sent from God.

Whether they married or not is a technicality that is now lost to time but Constantius star was rising (he eventually climbed to become Emperor) and a lowly barmaid from Drepanum did not suit his ambitions. So he cast Helena aside and took another wife, Theodora. This was a little after Helena had borne him a son, Constantine, probably the most significant mortal ever born. Helena and Constantine were sent to live out their days in the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia, their bond growing ever closer through their solitude.

Following Constantius’ death upon campaign against the Picts of Scotland, his troops looked for a likely successor and settled upon Constantine, who they rose to Emperor in 306 AD. Constantine immediately restored his beloved mother from obscurity and made her honorary Empress of the new empire he established in the east.

Having unfettered access to her son’s treasury, Helena undertook a trip to Palestine during 326 to 328 AD. This was with the express intention of recovering the relics of Christianity, a burgeoning religion she had adopted and, later, to which her son would convert, setting in motion the Christianisation of most of Europe and beyond. Helena’s trip was probably the first archaeological mission in history.

After distributing largesse to the poor and needy along her route – this was a time when such charity was a cornerstone of the new religion – she turned her attention to fieldwork. According to legendary accounts, Helena was moved by the Holy Spirit to dig in Jerusalem, whereupon she found wood from three crosses. Some sources say that she immediately knew which one was the cross upon which Jesus was crucified by the plaque affixed upon it, declaring him King of the Jews. Another source says that she took all tree crosses to a sick woman and, touching her with each in turn, identified the holy cross upon the woman’s miraculous recovery.

Helena also found part of Christ’s tunic, the rope with which he was lashed to the cross, and also the nails that went through Christ’s hands and feet (but not his body as, according to scripture, this ascended to heaven). She sent one of the nails to her son who made it into a horse bridle, so honouring the prophecy linking the nails to “the bells of horses”. Unwittingly, Helena also sparked the cult of relics and thousands of pieces of the true cross were to find their way across Europe, most with rather dubious pedigree. There is still a Reliquary of the True Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Helena died a little after her return from Palestine in 330 AD with her son at her side. She was buried in the Mausoleum of Helena, just outside Rome, and, what is claimed as her sarcophagus, now lies in the Vatican Museum. Despite some unsavoury elements to her life – she was implicated in the deaths of Constantine’s wife and son – beautification followed death and she is now Saint Helena of Constantinople, patron saint of archaeologists in recognition of her search for the relics of Christ. Not bad for a onetime barmaid.

Ötzi the Iceman

Monday, September 19th, 2011

Erika and Helmut Simon usually liked to complete their mountain excursions in a single day; they were experienced climbers and knew what they could comfortably manage. On Wednesday 18th September 1991, therefore, they knew that by getting held up whilst crossing a glacier, and then still pressing on to climb the peak that was their aim for the day, they would have to spend the night on the hill. That was no problem as there was a refuge nearby. The next morning dawned bright and, like any other climbers, Erikaand Helmut found the conditions irresistible and decided to bag another peak. It was on their return to pick up their rucksacks from the hut that it happened. Erika saw it first: a brown smudge in the snow, which, as they came closer, took the form of a man. For mountaineers, death is always a possibility, so the find, gruesome as it was, did not unduly surprise them and they tried to prise the remains out of the ice with their axes. What they had no way of knowing is that the body, christened Ötzi for the region in which he was found, had been dead for 5,300 years. He was the oldest frozen mummy ever known.

Dressed for travelling, Ötzi wore leather trousers, a deerskin coat, and a cape fashioned from woven grass. His shoes were finely made with bearskin soles and stuffed with grass as a precaution against the cold. His cap was pieced together from odd bits of fur but it would have been warm. He also carried a backback, an unfinished bow and arrows, some tools including a fire-lighting kit, and a copper axe. He was, perhaps, as much as 45 years old when he died, a grand age for a man at this time. What he was doing so high in the mountains remains a mystery but the circumstances surrounding his death are slowly being pieced together by an international team of experts; bringing to life the sorry tale of a time almost five millennia ago.

Ötzi came from the southern side of the Alps and was born and raised in the folded valleys of the foothills. He probably left a settlement in the Val Venosta, in Italy, on that fateful morning of his flight into the mountains. We can be reasonably certain about this as the microscopic bits of stone in his gut, originating from the stone tools used to prepare his food, leave a geological signature that can be precisely located. He was dressed for the hills and carried much of what he would have needed to make an extended stay comfortable, that is, provided he did not venture too high. Ötzi also carried something valuable and new: copper. A copper axe may have marked him out as a wealthy man and, perhaps, even a leader that others followed. If so, then his reign as leader was shortly to come to a dramatic end.

Ötzi was not in the best of health; his backpack contained medicine and modern analysis of his body shows signs of frailty. Maybe others saw this as a chance to seize power. Discontent was clearly festering as Ötzi had suffered a cut to his hand just a day or so before he died. The few nicks on the edge of his axe-blade may have been as a result of this altercation although we shall never know whether he was using it as a weapon or as a symbol for his diminishing status. It seems likely that similar threats forced him to make that fateful journey into the mountains. Pollen layers in his gut show that he travelled through the low altitude hornbeam trees, moved up to a stand of high altitude pines, before doubling back and visiting the hornbeams again. Perhaps he was trying to elude his pursuers. It did not work. Eventually, and probably through sheer desperation, he followed a pass up into the mountains where an arrow, expertly aimed so that it cut an artery, caused him to bleed to death. Before he died, his assailant removed the arrow, perhaps to mask the tell-tale mark of his or her identity. To make sure Ötzi was truly dead, his assailant also struck him on the head. An ignominious end for an old man. Whoever killed him, and there may have been more than one involved, left Ötzi’s belongings, including his axe, where they lay. Again, this may have been a precaution to avoid later detection but perhaps the items were just too special and too closely bound to Ötzi that their removal could not be countenanced. Enough harm had been done that day. With the last of his strength, Ötzi seems to have reached out for his axe – even today, his arm remains stretched across his body – but it was not to be. Whether he realised the sacred object was still close by or not, it could do little for him and he died alone, frozen in time.

In a bizarre twist, Simon Helmut, the man who jointly found Ötzi on 19th September twenty years ago, shared the same fate as his sensational discovery. In October 2004, his dead body was recovered from the ice where it had been trapped, just like Ötzi’s had, so many years before.

Death and Rebirth in Byzantine Sicily

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Death and rebirth is a common theme of many religions, often with a God dying and being reborn at certain times of the year. In shamanic communities, death and rebirth also alludes to the shamanic journey and the physical state of the shaman as he or she enters and returns from the otherworld.

Death and rebirth is also central to the Christian faith, with Jesus dying on the cross on Good Friday to be resurrected two days later on Easter Sunday. Within Christianity, such a cycle of death and rebirth seems entirely limited to Jesus, however, with the only hope of rebirth for ordinary mortals being in the afterlife. In fact, having the ability to die and be reborn may even be viewed as heretical and against the natural order determined by God.

It is on this basis that recent discoveries at the Byzantine village of Kaukana, on Sicily, are so interesting. Between AD 580 to cAD 640, a house within Kaukana was built, occupied, and finally abandoned when wind-blown sand engulfed the interior. Within the confines of the house, and probably constructed after the occupants had moved out, is a tomb, built above ground in the style usually reserved for high-status individuals. Inside were a woman and her daughter. Finding such a tomb within a house, at this date, is highly unusual.

Evidence around the tomb – a hearth for cooking and copious food remains – suggests that people were returning to the tomb to feast with the dead spirits that lay within. This was frowned upon by religious authorities, and they would have been horrified to learn that there was also a small hole in the covering of the tomb to allow libations and other choice morsels to be passed to the dead woman inside.

We know that the occupants of the tomb were Christian since there are many symbols with alpha and omega signs; clearly those burying the woman thought that they were important to include. So, the question is: why did people – probably Christian themselves – defy their own tradition and bury a woman in a high-status tomb, in a house (possibly her own), and then continue to visit the site to cook and share food with the deceased? A strange mark on the woman’s cranium might provide the answer.

A small dimple at the back of the skull, as well as signs of water-on-the-brain, suggests meningocele, a condition leading to headaches and frequent fainting fits. It is the fits that are significant. A woman who regularly faints with seizures, only to rise again a few minutes later, may have been thought to be divinely touched, even replicating the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. In Renaissance times, St Catherine was venerated for precisely these qualities.

At Kaukana, was the posthumous treatment of the woman because people revered her power or did they fear her reach, even after death? Or did they think that she might possibly rise once again and kept her tended and fed for this possibility?

The dig, led by Professor Roger Wilson of the University of Columbia, returns to Sicily this year and will attempt to uncover more about this remarkable woman and her powers of resurrection.

More information on the University of British Columbia website.

Old Bones: The Reburial Issue in the UK

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

With no specific legislation determining how archaeologists excavate, handle, and curate bones, the Ministry of Justice has ruled that the Burial Act of 1857 will govern archaeologists excavating any human remains. This requires reburial after a maximum of two years and for the initial excavation and handling of the bones to be screened from the public.

This historical Act was designed to cover the expansion of our cities over contemporary cemeteries, where developers would haul out Auntie Mildred in front of horrified relatives and grind up her bones for dog meal. In these circumstances, the Act worked well. Archaeological excavation is clearly different and perhaps requires different rules.

It seems unnecessary for the excavation of human remains to be screened from the public. This is our past and if remains need to be removed from the ground (which they often do before development or, exceptionally and arguably, if they are particularly important for the advancement of knowledge), it should be done within the community and observed by those members of the community who wish to witness the event. It should not be hidden behind green gauze. This smacks of secrecy and a lack of respect for the descendants of the bones, which could, theoretically, include us all.

Reburial after two years is also problematic if we are going to gain all the information we can from the bones. My own research relies on work undertaken on human remains so I am not going to be hypocritical and suggest that such research is limited. The bones excavated from Stonehenge in 2008 were expected to be in the laboratory undergoing tests until 2015. This will not now happen and information about our shared human past will potentially be lost.

If Ötzi the Iceman had been reburied after two years, the loss of information from his remains would be incalculable since new discoveries continue with the advance of technology. In some cases, old bones have even helped medical science understand the spread of disease such as leprosy and this has helped in its management.

For me, where bones can add to the sum of human knowledge, they should be studied. This is not disrespectful to the ancient dead but an attempt to know them and their world better. This is what I try to do through my research and writing. From a spiritual standpoint, my feeling is that the ancestors would not object to this.

The real problem comes with reburial. Archaeologists often want the bones retained (or displayed in museums) whereas others want them reinterred in the ground (and it should be pointed out that the current legislation does not require reburial in the same location or in the same context as the remains were excavated. In particular, grave goods or offerings are not covered under the Act).

Museum displays of human remains always make me feel uncomfortable but I realise I am in a minority compared to the general population. I especially do not like the remains displayed as artefacts and, if they are going to remain in museums (which seems likely), there needs to be a better way to display them. As things stand, I don’t think people appreciate what they are witnessing or are encouraged to reflect upon the individual that the bones represent. I would separate human remains from the main gallery and attempt to inspire some reverence upon observers, perhaps by darkening the room and letting the remains be the sole focus of study. It would also be advantageous if something of the sanctity of the burial rite could be retained. The Russians certainly demand respect from the tourist hoards that visit Lenin’s body every year.

Whilst it would be nice if all bones could be excavated, studied, and returned to their original place of burial (and this should perhaps be the aim, however infrequently it occurs in practice), some bones will inevitably be retained, either for scientific reasons or because their place of burial no longer exists.

For storage, maybe a compromise (and we do need a compromise) is to build dedicated charnel houses – preferably underground – to replace the myriad cardboard boxes in scattered museums. Bones could be sorted and stored close to their point of excavation in much the same way that Neolithic people stored bones in chambered tombs. Access would be granted to researchers and the public, with space specifically reserved for education, ritual, or even private contemplation. Anyone wanting to remove the bones for use – whether it is for scientific research, community education, or ritual – would need to demonstrate that they could look after the remains and have the wherewithal to do so. Ideally, this would lead to collaboration between spiritual use and academic research where bones were entrusted to joint temporary custodianship and resources pooled accordingly. Recently in Japan, for example, a Shinto priest worked with the spirit of an Egyptian mummy prior to its display in an exhibition. I accept that some remains may be too fragile or too valuable to be released but provision could be made for some level of interaction at the charnel house.

This is an emotive subject and I hope that I have not offended any deeply held views; reburial inflames passions unlike anything else. But without movement on both sides, the current unacceptable situation will remain. New rules are required, both to govern the initial archaeological excavation and the respectful curation or reburial of remains. The presently unworkable impasse affords an opportunity for the entire issue to be discussed and a new approach adopted that better reflects concerns and aspirations on all sides. I hope we can work something out.